The Golden Age of Travel: An Evening at the Pan Am Experience

Man, I’m lucky. I really am one lucky, lucky girl.

About a month ago, I received an invitation to a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. I saw who it was for (Chris Sloan, Managing Editor at Airways Magazine), when it was taking place (Friday, December 7) and where it was taking place (Pan Am Experience, Air Hollywood, Los Angeles).

“Yep, I’m going.”

That’s what I said to myself the second I saw the invite, and here’s why:

About two years ago in an effort to help me get my name out there, Chris graciously allowed me to write a few stories for Airways with next to no aviation journalism experience. My mentor, Benét Wilson, introduced me to him after I had written a few pieces for her blog, Aviation Queen. Both Benét and Chris are two of the most selfless people I have ever met… it’s really, really inspiring to be around them, and an honor to call them my friends.

This past weekend was incredible, to say the least. I flew into LAX Friday morning and was dead set on getting to my Burbank hotel—a roughly 30-mile trek—without calling a Lyft. I took the Fly Away bus to Union Station, and from there caught the MetroLink train to downtown Burbank (this is SO “The Californians,” right!?), where I meandered through various neighborhoods in the 70-degree sunshine and eventually made it to my hotel. Success!

I settled in, cleaned up and headed to Air Hollywood, knowing for certain this would be one of the best nights of my life—and it sure was.

For those of you who don’t know, Air Hollywood is a filming studio in LA with various aviation-themed sets… we’re talking analog and glass cockpits, airplane interiors and exteriors, and a full-fledged terminal mock-up.

For instance, the famed airplane scene in “Bridesmaids” was shot here (you know, when Kristen Wiig stumbles down the aisle, completely hammered, and says to the flight attendant, “Stove… what kind of name is that? Are you an appliance?”). The studio also houses the actual analog cockpit used in the movie “Airplane!” I mean… COME ON.

Air Hollywood is more than just a building full of movie sets, however. They run several amazing programs like Fear of Flying, Open Sky for Autism and K9 Flight School. These are good, good people… but I wouldn’t expect anything less from friends of Chris.

When I arrived Friday evening, I walked into the building not knowing the caliber of what I was about to see… Outside were the huge “LAX” letters that one would typically see outside of… you guessed it, LAX Airport. I followed a red carpet that led me to an entrance with a large Pan Am sign above it that read “First & Clipper Class Terminal.”

Inside, I was greeted by a ticket agent at a spot-on replica Pan Am check-in counter—here I got a boarding pass for the best flight I’ve ever taken without leaving the ground. All of the guests spent an hour or so mingling in the lounge, which was complete with a full bar and chock full of vintage posters, airline seats and other Pan Am memorabilia.

Then, the time came to board the plane. The entire crew more or less appeared out of thin air, perfectly on cue, dressed just as they would have been back in the 60s or 70s. They boarded the plane, and we all followed.

The “in-flight” experience itself was insane… I mean it was so, ridiculously cool. Lucky for me, I was seated with friends and acquaintances at a four-person table (some folks, for instance, were seated in a typical airline seat with an individual tray table to dine at).

After settling in, we enjoyed more cocktails and were given nuts and chocolates to snack on, before the full smorgasbord was served. It started with bread and butter, followed by caviar (no, I obviously did not partake in that), an incredibly tasty caprese salad and then our entrees. Being a vegetarian, I opted for the ravioli, which was truly delicious—on the side were potatoes, green beans and carrots.

Throughout dinner, the flight attendants paraded down the aisles in various uniforms from different airlines and decades. I should also mention, we DID in fact get to smoke! OK, not really… they were fake cigarettes but still incredibly realistic—if you twisted them just right and blew into them, smoke came out the other end.

After we finished eating, we all made our way to the front of the plane to watch an incredible video celebrating the evening’s captain (Chris, of course!) and indulged in some birthday cake.

Finally, to round out the night, we took a tour of the Air Hollywood studio itself, where we saw the various cockpits and sets I referenced above, and learned more about the amazing programs that the studio owners run.

I won’t lie, I was pretty pooped by the time the night was over… after all, I had woken up at 6 a.m. CT to catch my flight, and when I got back to my hotel, it was roughly 1 a.m. (3 a.m. CT!). I wouldn’t have missed it though… being able to take part in such a unique event all while celebrating Chris alongside his family and friends was truly unforgettable.

The next morning I awoke bright and early and headed back toward LAX for a day of plane spotting. I was out at various locations in and around the airport from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but that airport gets such a unique mix of airlines and aircraft, that making a day of it was a no-brainer. Afterwards, I checked out a local brewery in Inglewood before heading to my hotel, ordering room service for dinner and ultimately calling it a night.

So, there you have it. Just weeks after finding out that I, myself, would be lucky enough to work on Boeing’s Archives team, and help tell the story of the company’s amazing past and how it shaped who we are today, I found myself transported back in time to experience firsthand what the “Golden Age of Travel” was all about.

Speaking of golden ages, one of my favorite movies is “Midnight in Paris,” mainly because I so closely identify with Owen Wilson’s character, who is accused of “Golden Age thinking.” Wilson’s arch nemesis defines this “denial” as the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one someone is living in. He goes onto say it’s a “flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

I won’t lie, I’ve often felt that I was “meant to live” in a different era… it wavers back-and-forth between the 40s and the 60s. I’m not sure why I feel that way, but I’ve always had this interest in the past and the idea of “the good old days…” Maybe it is a denial of sorts, but I can’t think that’s completely true, as I am perfectly happy with where I’m at today.

Ultimately, I think history is one of our most powerful tools in navigating the future and its many unknowns. The stories of things, people and places that once were… they’re so special. So, with that, here’s to you, Chris… thanks for allowing me to celebrate your special day with you, and for allowing us all to experience the glamour, beauty and exclusivity of flight as is was in the Golden Age.

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